It’s safe to say that 2020 wasn’t a vintage year for trust; social media was a cesspool of conspiracy theories related to the pandemic, China, vaccines, and of course US politics (apparently, Washington DC is full of child-kidnapping serial killers who own pizza shops).
The above has been certified fresh by public relations firm Edelman. In its latest annual Trust Barometer survey, the company has done its polling of thousands of people worldwide, and the results are in. Businesses are trusted more than any other group (that includes NGOs, governments and media). Businesses are also seen as the only segment that is both ethical and competent.
There’s a couple of interesting insights from the Trust Barometer on this issue (and I’d advise you to read the whole report, especially the segments on trust in the pandemic). The top line is that the public expects businesses to be more involved in societal issues, especially where others (read government) are failing.
Now, there’s both opportunities and challenges here. It could be argued that business is more trusted because it hasn’t taken sides on issues – that’s beginning to change after events last year and in January 2021, with many firms in the US and Europe weighing in on politics publicly. CEOs are increasingly being listened to on issues that have major societal impact (Brexit is a good example of this in the political space. Other examples could include the impact of technology on employment).
But any political stance a brand or the CEO takes is also going to lead to polarization. Take the example of Nike, Black Lives Matter and boycott campaigns. Any public stance, such as advertising on Fox News, can also be taken as a public stance on politics, and lead to calls for boycott.
Some firms are taking a clear stance on issues such as sustainability through their stated purpose. Unilever is a great example of this – the argument goes that younger consumers are looking for brands that share their beliefs and are acting to improve society. However, I’d argue that many CEOs are still risk-averse, and don’t want to be seen to be offending anyone. This is even more true in non-democratic societies, where governments don’t face public pressure through representative systems (my one criticism of Edelman’s Trust Barometer work is that the public/informed consumers in non-democratic societies cannot freely speak their minds, or are consciously/subconsciously pressured to respond in a certain way). I doubt I’d ever see a CEO in my region speaking in a way that may be interpreted as even mildly critical of the government – they’d be out of a job (and the country if an expat) within 24 hours.
Edelman highlights a number of areas where businesses can build a trust surplus. Some are pretty simple – the climate is an issue that we all should be talking about, including businesses. There’s the response to COVID-19, as well as what we can do to further economic growth, and put long-term “thinking” over short-term profits (my assumption here is that the public are referring to income redistribution). There’s one element which will make every journalist howl with laughter, which is “guarding information quality”. In my view, businesses struggle more than any other group with transparency, so I’d love to have Edelman clarify this point (again, my assumption is that as media is less trusted, businesses have to become better at telling their own stories).
I’m going to leave it at that for now. Do have a look at the full report, and let me know your thoughts. Do you expect businesses to speak more openly in 2021? If yes, why and how? And if no, why not?